A season after Notre Dame's defense took its place among the elite in school history, a scrappy group of underachievers just did their best to one-up them.
In the Irish's 14-10 victory over USC, Notre Dame's defense put together one of the most impressive 30 minutes of football we've seen in the post-Lou Holtz era. Holding Cody Kessler and the USC offense to just 68 yards in the second half, the Irish some how made a four-point halftime lead hold up under the most difficult of circumstances, even after Tommy Rees went down with an injury.
What makes the Irish defense's dominance all the more surprising is how they got there. This is the group that Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner carved for 41 points. It's a unit that Purdue's Rob Henry gashed for 256 yards and three touchdowns.
Learning to live life After-Te'o hasn't been easy for Bob Diaco's defense, and up until Saturday night, the group's best performance consisted of holding Arizona State to 34 points on 427 yards, a game where the Sun Devils still managed to go 75 yards for a touchdown in just 57 seconds.
For weeks, Brian Kelly has talked about his defense being close to putting it all together.
On Saturday night—with a rivalry game with Southern Cal (and likely the season) hanging in the balance—he was rewarded for his patience.
Kelly's heroes weren't just the usual suspects, All-American candidates Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt. They included a slew of freshmen and back-ups, including high-profile five-star recruits like outside linebacker Jaylon Smith and walk-on linebacker Joe Schmidt, a Southern California native who made a key hit to break up a pass in the fourth quarter.
How good was the Irish defense? Consider that for all the impressive performances the '12 team put together while leading Notre Dame to an undefeated regular season, they didn't come close to matching the dominance of this second half performance.
Every ounce of those defensive heroics were needed after backup quarterback Andrew Hendrix came in for an injured Tommy Rees and proceeded to drive the Irish offense into a proverbial ditch.
Hendrix essentially made the defense play with one hand tied behind its back, gaining just 23 net yards on the 23 offensive plays after taking over for Tommy Rees, who was planted in the ground hard by Trojan linebacker Lamar Dawson with just over nine minutes left in the third quarter. Hendrix was at the helm of the Irish offense for nearly 24 minutes.
Think those number through for a second. 24 minutes. 23 plays. 23 yards. That the Irish defense was able to put together this type of drive chart in the second half is even more incredible when you look at the help they were given.
|USC Second Half Drive Chart|
|Field Position||Plays-Yards||Drive Ending||T.O.P.|
|ND 47||5-19||Missed Field Goal||3:00|
|ND 34||6-14||Turnover on Downs||3:38|
|USC 25||5-34||Turnover on Downs||0:41|
|Official Box Score|
The game didn't start off looking like a vintage defensive performance.
After the Irish offense drove the ball inside the Trojan one-yard line on the game's opening drive, Kelly decided to take a gamble on 4th and Goal. But the handoff to Cam McDaniel was stuffed in the backfield, and the 12-play drive ended up getting nothing.
Making things worse, the Trojans took the ball from inside their own five-yard line and went 96 yards in 13 plays, with Silas Redd capping off 40 impressive rushing yards with a one-yard touchdown.
The Trojans converted two critical third downs on their opening scoring drive. They didn't manage to convert another for the rest of the game, failing on their final eleven tries.
There will be time for Irish fans to fret about the offense if Tommy Rees misses any considerable time from what Kelly is calling a neck strain. And USC players seem intent on finding someone else to blame for their offensive ineptitude. Freshman wide receiver Darreus Rogers told the Orange County Register, "We do what we can. We can’t beat the refs."
The refs weren't the ones that took to holding Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams, nor were they the ones that racked up the other mistakes, with the Trojans tallying eleven back-breaking penalties for 95 yards.
Interim coach Ed Orgeron might have to answer why he abandoned Silas Redd, who carried just five times in the second half after racking up 91 yards before halftime.
But on a cold, rainy night in South Bend, nobody expected much in the battle between two unranked teams, just the 11th time that's happened in Notre Dame and USC's 85 battles. Notre Dame's defense turned in a classic performance to bail out an offense, turning an ugly 14-10 win into a thing of beauty.